Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Net Neutrality May Soon Be a Thing of the Past

Today is Tuesday, December 21, so today is the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. In the wake of a historic vote by the Commissioners of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) this morning, today likely will be seen in retrospect as the darkest day in the history of the Internet. Despite campaign promises, and repeated statements after his inauguration supporting unfettered Net Neutrality, today, the FCC is poised to adopt a sweeping new set of regulations that threaten the independence and open freedom Internet users now enjoy.

Since its emergence in the 1990's as a public spin off from a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) research project called ARPAnet, the Internet has been freely accessible by every interested computer user with a means of connecting to it. While all Internet service providers (ISPs) have always charged users for their connections, the content itself has always been available free of charge. That may be threatened in the future.

Once implemented as proposed, the new regulations will make it easier for mobile service providers such as A T &T and Verizon to restrict or block access to web sites or services they deem to be in competition with similar services they themselves provide. As an example, a provider with its own video on demand service would be free to either severely restrict or completely block its customers from accessing Netflix’s instant streaming movies and TV show episodes. Other streaming video sites could be similarly affected.

Some of what is allowed under the new rules is already happening with some Cable TV/broadband Internet providers. My broadband service is provided by Cable One, a regional carrier located primarily in the Midwest and parts of the West. They never explain why to their customers, however, they have completely blocked access to ESPN’s on-line live game broadcasting option now called ESPN3.com (previously it was ESPN360.com), Under the proposed rules, actions such as these could easily become commonplace.

Another big area of concern – especially for mobile Internet customers – is media access. Currently, independent sites such as Newser, Alternet, Treehugger.com and the Huffington Post are the best of the corporation independent news websites that help to keep the Internet democratic by providing all of the hard news and fact-based opinion that the corporate media tries to suppress. Under the new rules, an ISP that is ideologically strongly conservative would be allowed to restrict or deny access to “unacceptable” web sites like these.

In time, I can see this access filtering extending to the blogosphere as well. This is why US Senator Al Franken (D-MN) sees this issue as “the most important free speech issue of our time” in a well written critique published on the Huffington Post website yesterday.

One strength of the Internet lies in its diffuse, largely unregulated, fiercely independent nature. There never has been a “central headquarters” for the net, and one must never be created. Corporate America wants the FCC to give its blessing to their goal of transforming the worldwide Internet into yet one more profit center for them, and into yet one more avenue through which they control what every human being on the planet sees, hears and believes.

If and when the FCC completes its action on this matter and posts the new rules on its website, I will have more to say on this matter. For now, I add my blogger’s voice to those who oppose regulatory moves aimed at trying to regulate that which defies regulation – the Internet.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Fire in historic Provo, Utah Tabernacle Leaves City’s Cultural Heart Broken

Sometime in the wee small hours of Friday, December 17, 2010, a fire broke out, apparently on the second floor, of the historic Provo Tabernacle in Utah. This building, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, has been used for both community and church events.

Shortly before 2:45 am, the Provo Fire Department received word of the fire, and responded within moments, to find the second floor engulfed with fire. At first, hose crews were sent into the structure to attack the fire from the inside. However, in time, in the interests of safety, these crews were withdrawn while the suppression effort continued from the outside. At 5 am, the north part of the roof began to collapse, and take part of the north wall with it. By 6 am, virtually the entire roof had collapsed.

The big question, naturally, is whether the outer walls can be saved or not. The answer is far from certain at this time because the investigation into the cause has yet to begin. Only after that process is finished can structural engineers enter the structure to assess the condition of what is left. Preliminarily, the appearance of several visible cracks in the first floor outer walls before the fire was extinguished raises serious doubts.

One might wonder why a non-Mormon who has never even visited Provo would even care about this news event. I find I can’t explain it, however, there is something about this story that has touched me very deeply. For some reason, I feel a sense of loss, even at a distance of several hundred miles. Perhaps, in time, clarity on these issues will surface. Until then, may my compassion reach out and bring a feeling of comfort to the community of Provo.

I’m Back (Again)

To paraphrase the heroic pilot who saved the world in the movie Independence Day, “Hello, world – I’m back.” With this post I bring this blog literally back from oblivion. I was under the impression that I had deleted it earlier this year. So when I logged on to Blogger.com today, I was very pleasantly surprised to see that this blog still exists AND that people are still occasionally visiting it. So, rather than start a new blog that no one could possibly know about, I will resume posting Random Musings on a variety of subjects.

Last month I took part in the National Novel Writing Month contest for the third year in a row, and in the process became a three time winner of the event. In its wake has come a new personal commitment to write at least 1,500 words a day of either fiction, non fiction, or both every day of the year. What better encouragement to write on a regular basis that to have a blog (or two) nagging at me?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

President Barack Obama: Most Disappointing One-Term President in American History?

In 2008, then Senator Barack Obama captured the attention of the American electorate by his campaign theme of “Change we can believe in.” This message took hold in the minds of many voters tired of the communicationally challenged Bush administration. So, in November, he was elected in a stunning landslide over the Republican ticket of McCain & Palin. Even in his Inaugural Address, this theme of change loomed large, renewing the hope everyone felt.

Almost from day one of his administration, President Obama seemingly has spent more time backpedaling from campaign promises and distancing himself from actions mentioned in the Inaugural address than he has pushing through actual progress.

The muddled mess called health care reform is but one shining example of this pattern. Early on, his administration emphasized the need for a Public Option in health care reform. Then when obstructionist forces in Congress – from both sides of the aisle – balked, instead of standing firm, he backtracked, and withdrew his support. As a result, meaningful health care reform likely is unattainable for the foreseeable future. Indeed, in the March 11 issue of The New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Drew asks “Is There Life in Health Care Reform?” While serious doubts exists about the future of the current House and Senate versions, there is still a slim chance that a decent bill will emerge.

More disturbing is the track record of waffling being established by the Obama administration in the foreign relations arena. In a brief review of this muddied record, Kenneth Ross, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch asks “Empty Promises? Obama’s Hesitant Embrace of Human Rights” in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs. This short article gives a well written look at this track record, and the places where his words and actions do not match up.

Perhaps no issue underscores this inconsistent track record more clearly than the status of Guantanamo Bay and the remaining inmates. In his Inaugural Address, Obama made it clear that the base would be closed within a year. Yet it is still open, still occupied, and the military tribunals created by the Bush administration still exist. Does a clear mandate for the closure of Gitmo still exist? It is beginning to appear like such a mandate no longer exists.

Domestically, his track record is equally dismal. Too many misguided Bush administration policies continue in full effect, apparently without being examined by his administration for their effectiveness, or even their constitutionality. Indeed, it appears like airport security is only growing more draconian, more irrational and more constitutionally questionable under his administration, not less. As a nation, are we safer today from terrorist attacks than we were even a year ago? I have my doubts.

During the campaign, and early in his Presidency, he at least made it sound like he was a firm supporter of expanding civil and legal rights for the entire GLBT community. Yet, over a year later, only the Matthew Shepherd Hate Crimes Act has been enacted into law. It is beginning to appear more and more that he has withdrawn support for passage of an Employment Non Discrimination Act (ENDA) that bans employment discrimination based on sexual identity or gender orientation. When that critically needed law will actually be voted on by either the full House or Senate is anybodies guess.

Despite the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff coming out strongly in support of repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, again his administration seemingly has backtracked and withdrawn its support for repeal. If the leadership of the military supports repeal, and if there is widespread support of the idea from the rank and file in the military, shouldn’t he at least be somewhat supportive of the repeal legislation languishing in Congress?

Throughout the campaign and the early days of his administration, President Obama kept promising greater transparency in how the administration conducted its business. Increasingly, those promises are not being kept.

One example of this re-emergence of Bush-era opaqueness affects me personally, and I am beyond not happy. In the waning days of the Bush administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Public and Indian Housing drafted a revision to tenant documentation requirements. Under this proposed rule, all tenants of Public Housing Authority units – regardless of length of tenancy – would be required to provide a birth certificate, or a US Passport as proof of legal citizenship status. Those who failed to provide the documentation in a timely manner would be declared to be illegal aliens, and evicted from their residence. What remains unanswered is whether HUD’s declaration of those in non-compliance as illegal would lead to their arrest and deportation by the Federal Government.

The Obama administration revisited this draft rule last fall in response to a number of concerns voiced by Public Housing Agencies near the US borders with Canada and Mexico about the rule’s impact on people born in other countries. Then, working in a completely opaque, behind closed doors environment, the draft rule took effect January 31, 2010.

Because I am disabled, I live in a local Housing Authority studio apartment. Thus, I have two major issues with this rule and how it was placed into effect.

First, at no time has the need, or benefit, of this rule ever been explained to Public Housing residents, despite the fact that it affects us personally. Not only that, but, based on Internet research I have done in recent months, no public hearings of any kind were ever held, and no public comment period ever existed. If this is what the Obama administration means by “transparency”, then my Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary needs serious updating.

Second, I take serious umbrage whenever anyone questions my citizenship status. I represent the eleventh generation of my patrilineal lineage to call this continent home. Indeed, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather brought my family tree to New London, Connecticut in 1666, then was chosen as New London’s Constable a year later. Thus, my family has lived on this continent for more than a third of a millennium, so I should not have to prove to anyone that I am a US Citizen. Yet that is precisely what I am being forced to do.

This ridiculous rule first saw light of day during the illegal immigration “crisis” that the Bush administration believed we had in the United States. It is one of many such rules that needed to be scuttled early on in his administration by President Obama. This rule does nothing about increasing US security, or about reversing the on-going financial malaise gripping the country. So, why is it necessary? The only reason I can see is that it gives control addicted, voyeuristic Federal bureaucrats yet one more tool to use to threaten and oppress the less well off, the disabled, the physically challenged and senior citizens without cause. This from a Nobel Peace Prize recipient?

Kenneth Ross, referring to the situation in Israel, quotes part of President Obama’s Nobel acceptance speech: “only a just peace based on the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting.” While these are nice words, again, the administration’s actions them. More disturbingly, with the dual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq still very much with us, these words apply as much to US citizens as those of any other country. Are all of his promises and rhetoric nothing more than empty words? Apparently.

My disappointment with the Obama administration continues to grow more profound with almost every passing day. I voted for him in 2008. I doubt that I will vote for him in 2012.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Baptist missionaries arrested in Haiti, giving the United States yet another international black eye

On January 20 ten Baptist missionaries, most of whom reside in Idaho, were arrested in Haiti for trying to transport 33 children into the Dominican republic without proper documentation. In their initial court hearing they were charged with kidnaping and criminal association. Because the first charge involves children, Haitian law apparently prohibits release on bail while the case is pending.

This case has already been fairly widely covered in the US news media, with most media outlets getting the essential facts right. However, pertinent background facts about Laura Silsby, the group’s leader have been either ignored or glossed over far too often. In some of the media reports, this presents the group as being victimized by the Haitian government while possessing noble intentions. I contend this is far from the case.

In Idaho, Laura Silsby has frequently been in trouble of one kind or another with the law. She owns an online shopping business based in southwest Idaho. Between February, 2008 and July, 2009, fourteen lawsuits for nonpayment of wages. Nine were resolved in favor of the employees. Her business paid out in excess of $34,000 in back wages and Idaho Department of Labor penalties.

Currently, court records acquired by the Boise Idaho Statesman newspaper show that she is due in District Court next week for a hearing in a civil suit filed last October by her former marketing director. The trial in that suit is scheduled to begin later in February. In March, she is due in court to answer to yet another civil suit that has been filed against her.

An excellent brief summary of her civil woes assembled by the Statesman can be read here.

From her track record of deceit, and an apparent problem with keeping commitments, troubling questions abound about this entire group effort. Equally puzzling is the make-up of the detainees. Six of the ten are 34 years old or older, and include a part-time youth pastor at Bethel Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas and the pastor of the Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho. Why didn’t one of these other adults sense something was amiss, and speak up? For that matter, why
didn’t at least one of them take the time to research the relevant legal requirements for setting up the Haitian refugee orphanage they were allegedly building in the Dominican Republic?

Clearly there are many details about this incident that have not been made public yet. Until all of the facts are on the table and out in the open, many questions will remain. The group’s Haitian defense attorney claims that nine of the ten were unaware that they lacked the proper paperwork for moving the children across the border. I find that claim a bit hard to believe.

Once the Haitian judicial process is completed the world will know whether the collected evidence is sufficient to confirm their guilt or not. If they are adjudged to be guilty, then the question shifts to the appropriate sentence to be handed down. The kidnaping charge carries a possible maximum sentence of up to life in prison while the criminal association charge carries a lighter sentence. Their Haitian attorney seems to think that the most anyone would get is fifteen years. Would this be a just sentence? As I am not an attorney, this is a question I do not feel qualified to answer.

Still, this case raises troubling issues. Just how far should American aid providers be allowed to go in helping foreign victims of natural disasters? Is it appropriate for aid workers to seek to convince affected parents to hand them their children, as apparently happened in this case? How much effort should aid workers put into documenting whether a child is or is not an orphan? Finally, if a child has lost both parents, but has other, even distant, living relatives who are in a position to provide care and shelter, is the child still an orphan?

The down side to this unfortunate incident is the negative reputation and image it unavoidably lends to the Southern Baptist Convention and its relief efforts world wide. Even though all ten are members of SBC-affiliated churches, their questionable actions should not be seen as indicative of the way Baptist missionaries behave. (In the interest of full disclosure: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of any Baptist church.)

As a native of Idaho I am disgusted by the actions of this group. The typical Idaho resident is a stable, law abiding citizen who would not consider stooping to seemingly stealing children in an earthquake ravaged country to satisfy personal needs. Sadly it appears like Laura Silsby does not fit this mold.

Tonight, as I write this post, my heart goes out to the Haitian people. On the heels of last month’s crippling earthquake, the survivors do not need events like this creating more problems.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

President Obama Should Skip The Annual National Prayer Breakfast

This year’s National Prayer Breakfast will occur tomorrow, Thursday, February 4, 2010 in Washington, DC. Every year it draws invited members of Congress, the Administration, influential business and religious leaders. It is billed as an ecumenical gathering that reaches out to a wide variety of faith traditions. As AlterNet found out when it requested media access, the event is private, by invitation only and excludes Muslims, Jews and, presumably, anyone else whose views differ from those of the sponsors.

This pointedly narrow-minded Christian gathering is closed to most religious faiths and denominations in the United States. Accompanying the breakfast is a week-long lobbying festival on Capitol Hill, during which Family members pointedly push their agenda as the only acceptable American positions and policies. Thus, it appears to me that, whenever members of Congress or the Administration attend the breakfast they are sending a silent message that the Separation of Church and State doctrine is empty and meaningless.

President Eisenhower attended for the first time in 1953, and the sitting president has attended every year since. In keeping with that tradition, President Obama is planning on attending. There are compelling reasons why he should skip the breakfast, thereby breaking the 57 year long tradition. Then he would be wise to use his absence to more forcefully speak out against the pending Ugandan law criminalizing homosexuality and the advocacy of gay rights. This law provides for imposition of the death penalty for some “offenses.” Reportedly this law was written, and promoted in the Ugandan Parliament by legislators who are affiliated with, if not actual members of, The Family.

I also must question the ethical propriety of any Administration or Congressional member to openly attend this private event. The organizers, usually known as The Family is hugely secretive, particularly when it comes to revealing the names of members, or any details about its finances. Also, in a statement released earlier this week, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) noted that the organization’s head, Doug Coe, has praised the organizing abilities of Hitler and Bin Ladin.

Given that The Family obviously does not believe in freedom of speech, of association, of the press, or of religion, is it ethical for those who swore to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” before taking office to attend anyway? Is it appropriate for Administration and Congressional officials to attend an event overseen by one who praises an avowed enemy of the United States?

I am back after another hiatus and a laptop change

Two and a half months ago this blog, and my writing-oriented blog, From Both Sides of the Fence, went on what I thought at the time would be a permanent vacation. When this hiatus began, I was deep into participating in the 11th annual National Novel Writing Month contest (I won, as usual) and was struggling with an eight year old Sony laptop, and its arthritic keyboard.

Thanks entirely to a surprise offer from a relative in December, I have retired the Sony Vaio laptop, replacing it with a new Hewlett Packard Pavillion laptop. At the same time that I gained a larger screen and keyboard, this changeover also allowed me to upgrade from Windows XP (32 bit) to 64 bit Windows 7 Professional.

I have never been much of a Microsoft booster. Still, with Windows 7, I feel like Microsoft finally has developed a Windows version that really works. For the first time, I feel like Windows is working for me, rather than against me. For the first time, perhaps ever, the Internet is a joy to use because it is so colorful and fast.

For the first time since I launched these blogs, I can finally see them the way other visitors to them do. I am quite pleased at the colorful appearances of both, appearances I previously could only guess at due to limitations in the older laptop.

So Random Musings is back in production, this time much more likely to stay that way.